News and Comment

A leader may be gone, but risks are still presented by violent extremists

Monday 16 May 2011

The death of Osama Bin Laden is undoubtedly a blow to Al Qaeda and the movement of radicalised terrorists around the world who subscribe to its violent and aggressive rhetoric. Research on long standing terrorism movements, such as the Shining Path in Peru, whose charismatic leader Abimael Guzman was captured, does show that leaders are important, and that when they are removed, the movement often declines. But it is unlikely to be a defining moment in the battle that rages across the world to reduce the threat posed by terrorism.

The powerful narrative pushed by Al Qaeda and its affiliates remains powerful and compelling to many disaffected Muslims across the world and in the UK. The risk factors associated with violent extremism – such as the existence of highly unequal and polarised communities, the belief that the Muslim community is under attack, and lack of opportunities, especially for young Muslim men -remain largely in place, providing the oxygen from which extremists breathe and flourish.

The recent report, Keeping Britain Safe by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Homeland Security, raised worrying issues about the continued prevalence of extremists on UK University campuses, pointing to just one area which needs the attention of those involved in preventing extremism. This report may exaggerate the threat, but a threat remains none the less.

Need for a positive strategy to tackle the causes and threats of violent extremism

But what this death does provide is the opportunity to press the case for a stronger, more positive strategy for tackling the causes and threats of violent extremists. People are talking once more about the threat of terror, the nature of the threat which remains, and how to proceed to tackle the threat that persists.

Two separate, but linked, strategies are promised that will address these challenges head on: a revised approach to Preventing Violent Extremism (to be released by the Home Office), and a new National Strategy on Integration (from Communities and Local Government). Some of the content of these strategies, fore-grounded in recent speeches and presentations by ministers and civil servants, seem positive, and appear to explicitly respond to many of the problems levelled at the last Government’s approach to Prevent.

For instance, there is intent to reduce the extent to which Prevent activities indiscriminately focus on the entire Muslim community – causing many to believe that the past approach labelled all Muslims as potential extremists – and focus much more on where there is a real problem. The integration strategy, recognising that integration can reduce the risk of extremism, will try to promote values that are common to all, and find ways to enable communities of different backgrounds and faiths to work for common goals.

These strategies are long overdue. People we work with that are involved in Prevent have reported that their efforts over the last four years to tackle extremism are losing focus and momentum. This comes at a time of growing risks posed by the austerity measures, rising youth unemployment, and conflict within communities for ever scarcer resources. We hope that these strategies provide the clarity of focus and direction that will help them get back on track.

Need for evidence-based overarching strategy

What we are told is that there needs to be an overarching strategy, or road map, which explains how planned public service reforms, the Big Society, and community empowerment will mesh to provide the necessary levers and support to tackle the risks associated with extremism, such as highly polarised communities or the lack of support available to vulnerable young Muslims in the criminal justice system.

There is a growing body of information that exists about what works in promoting more resilient and integrated communities. OPM, for instance, has just been commissioned to evaluate the Sacred Spaces project – funded by Creativity, Culture and Education, which aims to promote cross-faith learning and understanding within supplementary faith schools. The results of a large scale review of promoting resilience in schools – conducted by OPM and NfER – are also due shortly, and could greatly add to the debate.

Following the death of the leader of Al Qaeda, we all need to ensure a long-term trend in the decline of violent extremism.

For more information about OPM’s work on building more integrated and resilient communities, please refer to our briefing paper.